Edmonton Restaurant Review: Pho Boy

The interior of Pho Boy.

Aiming to bring authentic pho and Vietnamese street food to Edmonton, locally owned and operated Pho Boy opened on Whyte Avenue and 100 Street in December of last year. They focused on a soft launch menu until the restaurant’s official grand opening in February, meaning the time was taken to hone their selection.

My friend and co-worker has been a fan since the beginning, and I would see her food posts from Pho Boy on social media frequently. Everything always looked so good. Therefore, when I happened across a Groupon deal, I jumped on it. Rather than use it immediately, I set the voucher aside until August. I knew I’d be hanging out around Old Strathcona during the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, so it’d be the perfect time to go. Plus, by then, I hoped that any and all growing pains would have worked themselves out of the establishment.

The entrance is tucked away past the somewhat hidden front patio space.

Between shows on a Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I ambled towards the address. I had recalled driving by the building on a previous occasion and seeing their round, bright yellow sign hovering above the sidewalk, but as we proceeded east, it didn’t stand out. In fact, I almost passed right by. The entrance is kind of masked by a somewhat gated front patio space. It’s actually a cozy sort of outdoor dining area that’s a bit tucked away from the pedestrians and traffic. However, it wasn’t nice enough that day for us to sit there, so we headed inside. One of the servers saw us a minute after we arrived. She seated us along the booth bench. Being later in the day, no more than a few of the other tables were occupied.

Playing the Street Fighter II arcade game.

The space is fun and well thought out. A sunset mural of Vietnamese farmers covers the one wall, while the other is plastered with vintage looking posters and the “Pho Boy” scrawl. The furniture consists of heavy, dark woods that keep the focus on the rest of the art and the unique lighting. There’s even a Street Fighter II arcade game sitting in the corner with a large TV screen hanging above it for other diners to watch players beat the high score.

Design aside, I was there for the food. At first the menu confused me because the Legend Vermicelli was listed under two different pages, but after consulting with the server, she pointed out that one included the regular spring roll with pork and the second was a vegetarian version without any meat. Either way, I was somewhat dismayed at the shortage of beef, chicken, pork or shrimp options that one would typically see at a Vietnamese joint. The only way of getting anything like that was with the Hero’s Feast ($17; it includes lemongrass beef and a shrimp skewer), which I was warned about in terms of portion size.  Regardless, I went with the latter. My boyfriend opted for the regular size Pho Boy Phoenix Special ($10).

While we waited, two other plates were brought out. One had a couple of large shrimp chips on it. The other had the usual pho garnishes: basil leaves, bean sprouts and a wedge of lime. Each ingredient looked fresh.

Our dishes arrived shortly after. To my dismay, the Phoenix Special was covered in cilantro (it’s my nemesis). Although the herb isn’t my boyfriend’s favourite either, he said he didn’t mind it this time. He stated that the heat of the soup made the flavour less apparent, and it worked well with the shredded chicken. I also think that his generous dousing of Sriracha sauce into the chicken broth may have helped to mask it. When I first took a spoonful of the soup to try it, I thought to myself that it had quite a pleasant kick of spice to it. That is, until I put two and two together and realized he’d already mixed in the Sriracha, so to be honest, I have no clue what the true broth tastes like. It seemed pretty clean though. There weren’t any grease bubbles in the bowl; it was just an aromatic and savoury soup that was perfect for a somewhat chilly day.

When it came to my Hero’s Feast, I was bracing myself. I thought that there was no way I’d be able to finish it. From what I was told, it would be huge. But, it showed up and I knew it wouldn’t be much of an issue. To start, I will contend that they do not skimp on the rice noodles or the veggies. There was a mountain of bean sprouts and julienned cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, and lettuce sitting atop the vermicelli. Yet, I had my eye on the prize. After I poured every last drop of the fish sauce into the bowl and tossed the components together, I worked my way through the dish. Admittedly, the shrimp were lackluster. The texture of the crustaceans was rubbery. The kitchen fared much better with the lemongrass beef; well-marinated, a little bit charred, thinly sliced and still tender, the meat, along with the crispy Legend Rolls were the star of the show. Initially, I didn’t understand why the eatery would offer the Legend Vermicelli with nothing other than spring rolls. From all past experiences, the spring roll is sort of the after thought to a vermicelli meal. Here, they were pairing it with the noodle bowl as the single source of protein. After trying the Legend Rolls, I get it. They are succulent and they provide that umami flavour to the dish without having to go the distance that other Vietnamese restaurants so often do. On my next visit, I know that the spring rolls will be enough to satiate my hunger.

Did Pho Boy wow me? They excelled in some ways (the crunch of the Legend Roll was unlike any other spring roll I’ve had) and there’s certainly room for improvement. Overall, I’d say it was decent. The food was satisfying, the prices were fairly reasonable and the service was stellar. Like their menu, Pho Boy is just slightly off the beaten path, but it’s one that is worth taking at least once.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar

An interior shot of El Cortez from my visit.

An interior shot of El Cortez from my visit.

I first heard about El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar from a good friend of mine. She had the opportunity to get a sneak peek of the restaurant and bar before it opened to the public about 15 months ago. It was the space, more than anything, that she said I should see. Even she conceded that the food wasn’t all that great at the time. However, the artwork and the basement (remains a mystery to me) were worth a visit.

As weeks, months and then almost a year passed by, I still hadn’t set foot in El Cortez. One of the big reasons being that Old Strathcona is just not all that convenient for me. But, from what I had gathered, the eatery had reassessed their menu and brought in new chef, Lindsay Porter, to revamp the offerings. My expectations went up.

Before I knew it, August was upon us. The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is the one annual event that is guaranteed to get me to Whyte Avenue, and, as it turns out, it also provided an excellent opportunity to finally try El Cortez.

Knowing that the area would be teeming with people during the festival, I decided to make an advance reservation through OpenTable. While the restaurant wasn’t entirely full when we arrived, I’m still glad that we did. Seats filled up rather quickly while we were dining . Some were there for a meal, others simply grabbed drinks as they waited for the basement to open up for whatever Fringe play was being performed that afternoon (El Cortez served as a new BYOV during the festival).

My first impression of the place was a good one. After all, you eat with your eyes first, and this was a restaurant that created a fun atmosphere that I was more than happy to spend time in. The look of El Cortez is meticulously detailed. There’s art covering each wall. All of them unique, but unifying in design. The lighting is worked into the art or is the art itself, casting shadows of colour everywhere you look. And that bar. The bar is gorgeous, housing bottles of tequila – the establishment is one of only nine in the world certified by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (The Tequila Regulatory Council) – backlit by an enticing blue.

Now, the question was whether or not the food would be up to par. My friend and I carefully perused the menu as we sipped on our beers. Eventually we decided to share orders of the Valentina’s fried cauliflower and the tuna ceviche. Since my friend wasn’t as hungry as me, I also opted to try a trio of the steak taco “bulgogi.”

The Valentina’s fried cauliflower was lightly breaded with the right bite, so there was still some crispness to the vegetable. The slightly tangy sauce coating the cauliflower was good on its own, but the crema dip on the side gave the dish that extra kick.

Sushi is one of my favourite cuisines, so it’s safe to say that I like raw foods. When there’s anything close to that on a menu, I usually like to sample it. The tuna ceviche sounded too good to skip. Chunks of tuna mixed with pineapple, mango, ginger, jalapeno, mint, cucumber and peanuts made this an interesting appetizer. My one qualm while eating it was that I came across a rather large tuna bone, so I was really cautious after that. However, the tuna was fresh and the flavours were really great. The ginger, mint and cucumber made it refreshing and light, and the peanuts helped to balance out the sweetness from the fruit. Jalapeno was added in to give it that necessary Latin heat without overtaking any of the other components. This was served with a tin of fresh tortilla chips and potato chips (I liked the latter more because they were seasoned and that worked well with the ceviche).

Tacos, when done properly, are a force to be reckoned with. Those little shells can hold any sort of meat or filling that you desire. Yet, we’d been without anything close to true Mexican street food for as long as I can remember. That is, until Tres Carnales popped up over four years ago. While I still love Tres, there are differences between the two. The major one being the type of taco that they use. The shells at El Cortez seem to be thicker and softer, and they might hold up slightly better. The dishes at El Cortez are arguably more aesthetically pleasing as well. Food is colourful at both, but there’s a bit more flair at El Cortez, which isn’t surprising considering the overall look of the restaurant. El Cortez is flashy, but Tres is a little more humble and its sister establishment, Rostizado, falls somewhere in between.

That leads me to the steak taco “bulgogi” dish. Damn, those were delicious. You only get three per order, and I wanted more when I was done. The steak was cooked perfectly. Juicy and tender meat with enough sauce in every bite and just a bit of crunch from the coleslaw meant this was a superb choice as my main.

Banana Custard for dessert

Banana Custard for dessert

With time left to spare before our next Fringe show, I opted for a dessert, too (I know, I know). I chose a banana custard with tequila marinated fruit and coconut granola. Honestly, I’m not sure I would order this one again. The texture of custard doesn’t really bother me like it does some people, but this one seemed watered down. I did enjoy the coconut granola, which also consisted of pumpkin seeds and slivered almonds. However, the tequila marinated fruit, interesting at first, felt like a misstep by the end.

All-in-all, I’d recommend El Cortez. The appetizers and the mains were all beautifully executed (minus the fish bones). Our server was friendly. However, she didn’t make it to our table as often later into our meal, so it was difficult to flag her down for dessert and the bill. Otherwise, the service was decent. If you can, you should also check out their Taco Tuesday when tacos are only $3 each and you can mix and match your order. Be sure to book a reservation though, or you could be in for a long wait. Plus, if this place wasn’t already cool enough, you should lookout for secret shows that take place every so often in the basement.

El Cortez's Twitter Image. I love this logo.

El Cortez’s Twitter Image. I love this logo.